Genre: Drama and Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.
Release Date: September 9th, 2011 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Steven Soderbergh Actors: Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan
eginning with Day 2 of some unknown event (though the title is certainly a giveaway), Elizabeth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) speaks on the phone with the man she just slept with – a convenient extramarital affair. Meanwhile, in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and London, England, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, people are suddenly falling ill – and dying shortly thereafter. And then a man in Tokyo, Japan is next, becoming so exhausted that he wanders into traffic to be crushed by a truck. With a few coughs, the disease seems to be spreading like a wildfire.
In San Francisco, California, blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) catches wind of some of the occurrences, which internet denizens blanket with conspiracy theories. Back in Minnesota, when Beth has a sudden seizure and dies in the hospital, her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), is beside himself with grief; and then, that afternoon, his young son unexpectedly passes away as well. In Switzerland, at the World Health Organization, Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) participates in a conference to uncover some of the details of the contagion that has been sweeping across several nations. And in Atlanta, Georgia at the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) discuss the procedures for isolating the sick and quarantining anyone suspected of being exposed.
By Day 6, as Thanksgiving weekend is about to come to a close, the cases begin to grow exponentially. Government officials concern themselves over how the public might react; Homeland Security steps in to assess the possibility of biological warfare; and Mears’ team starts to analyze the incubation period, contagiousness, symptoms, susceptible populations, and originations of the virus. With no treatment protocol, no vaccine, and a mortality rate in the low 20s, a pandemic is virtually inevitable.
The days tick by on the screen not only to create suspense but also to demonstrate the speed at which the disease overtakes major cities. There are also multiple perspectives at play, from an independent investigator to various hospitals to international organizations, each struggling to find a solution to the incredible spread. Interestingly, despite references to real events (such as the CDC’s perceived overreaction to H1N1), the portrayal of societies here shows a considerable amount of cooperation across numerous countries and governments and bureaucracies – and a speediness for preparing for an influx of infected people.
“Stop touching your face.” Fascinatingly, “Contagion” gets a lot of things right in its visualization of a sudden, rapid, uncontrollable pandemic. It would take nearly a decade to find out its jaw-dropping accuracy, but with the Covid-19 outbreak, it’s obvious that writer Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “The Informant!”) made some very educated guesses and some concrete predictions in designing this cautionary horror tale. From its spread through touching contaminated surfaces, to the widespread usage of facemasks, to complications with funeral arrangements, to the creation of special wards for treatment, to the concealment of information that might generate negative perceptions of specific countries, to political corruption, to the panic that causes free-falls in stock markets and depletions of supplies, to shortages of medical personnel, “Contagion” touches all the bases; it’s uncannily detailed, realistic, and factual.
It’s also quite the thriller, considering that it eventually takes the scenario to frightening extremes – going almost to the chaotic lengths of a zombie eruption. Smaller, personal stories illustrate the varying degrees of desperation and outrage and despair, utilizing an all-star cast that includes such familiar character actors as John Hawkes, Jennifer Ehle, Demetri Martin, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, and more. It even examines the tiny details of animal testing and mutations. And then there are the eerily prophetic realizations of media hysteria, influential deniers, harmful rumors, and the power of social distancing – a formerly peculiar phrase that is now a household term.
“I don’t think anyone’s immune to opportunity.” Most terrifying of all, however, are the depictions of mandatory curfews, limited food supplies, riots, and, finally, the stopgap of stockpiling guns and murdering neighbors for resources. Content only with comprehensively covering the conflict from beginning to end, director Steven Soderbergh opts to include the haunting imagery of utterly abandoned buildings and streets, pharmaceutical company uncertainties, and lotteries for the dearth of vaccines. The film is essentially a playbook for what to expect in this soberingly believable situation, though its entertainment value intermittently tends to dip below its educational elements – yet in a world after the rise of Covid-19, “Contagion” probably ought to be required viewing.
– Mike Massie